Madness on the Mat

Adam Zobel

Adam Zobel

Jared Barnes has to worry about his body. Further injury to his surgically-repaired shoulder could mean no more competition, so after every match and practice, he heads to the training room for ice.

The post-match pain doesn’t matter, though. For this sophomore Jackrabbit wrestler-like most of his teammates-the pride of competition outweighs the aches of his body.

Barnes is not alone as he prepares for the upcoming season. In fact, wrestling has fascinated athletic minds and frustrated muscles, bones and joints for thousands of years.

Wrestling forms were depicted on 15,000 year-old cave paintings in France and the sport was an event at the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece. The Iliad describes a wrestling match between epic heroes Ajax and Ulysses. The philosopher Plato, whose name means “broad shoulders,” was so dubbed due to his wrestling prowess.

The sport also has a special place in American culture. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were accomplished wrestlers. Professional wrestling peaked between the World Wars prior to the advent of television (which resulted in a decline of traditional competitiveness in favor of scripted entertainment).

Despite variations, the essence and fundamentals of the storied sport essentially stayed the same throughout history: two individuals flex to the brink of exhaustion to engage in close, personal combat. Stamina, discipline, alertness, quickness, flexibility, skill and strength are all necessary to be a success.

Training to grapple is a different animal than traditional athletic training. Football players move at full-speed for less than ten seconds at a time; wrestlers are in continuous combat for one three-minute and two two-minute periods, where one move can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Wrestling training includes distance running for stamina, sprinting for quickness, weight lifting for strength, stretching for flexibility, and practice to become proficient with takedowns and escape moves. Collegiate wrestling practice is an intense, continual event where athletes only slow down to rehydrate, treat injuries and get pointers from coaches.

The Pain; the Glory

With a rigorous training regimen like this, injuries become a part of wrestling life. They range from the merely unpleasant, such as simple bumps and bruises, to the more serious, such as broken bones. Ankle, back and leg sprains are common during training, while the season can bring injuries such as facial lacerations and skin infections. The knees and shoulders are particularly vulnerable to the harsh nature of the wrestling mat.

“It’s amazing that you abuse your body so much to get a little glory,” Tim Boldt, a sophomore all-American said.

Barnes noted that ice packs and training room visits are frequent for members of the wrestling squad.

“It’s hard on our bodies,” Barnes said when he reflected upon the lengthy wrestling schedule that extends from October into March.

And then there’s the cauliflower ear.

This ailment is caused by sharp or repeated blows, which damage the cartilage that shapes the ears. The eventual result is shriveled skin that gives the ear the telling cauliflower look, one that is shared by wrestlers, boxers and rugby players alike.

“I think it has more character than a tattoo,” said Joe Kenton, a sophomore wrestling at 157 lbs.

Headgear, which is mandatory for collegiate matches, usually prevents the “character” from emerging on the wrestler’s ear. Some wrestlers, however, choose not to practice with headgear, voluntarily making themselves vulnerable to the friction causing cauliflower ear.

According to SDSU wrestling coach Jason Liles, cauliflower ear is more common among wrestlers who compete on the international level, where headgear is rarely allowed in matches and the wrestlers do not practice with it. Liles said that former Jackrabbit national champion Chad Lamer never had cauliflower ear while at SDSU, but that he got it once he moved onto the wider competitions.

It is a given that most wrestlers get hurt at some point in their career. Sometimes, the athlete will play through the injury and its accompanying pain, but some ailments sideline a grappler straight away.

Surgery left Barnes redshirted his freshman year after a shoulder injury that virtually ripped his shoulder muscles in half.

“I tried wrestling, but it kept separating,” Barnes said. “It’s not fun when you have to hold back.”

Barnes returned last year to win 31 matches en route to qualifying for the national tournament-despite the possibility for further shoulder injury. As for now, he does rehab every day.

Boldt says sitting out due to injury just causes you to fall behind. He wrestled in every event last year for the Jackrabbits and said that mental discipline and intensity of the match overpower the pain.

“After you win, nothing bothers you,” Boldt said.

Making Weight

Wrestlers have to maintain a certain weight throughout the season in order to be eligible for competition. The hardest part is losing the weight at the beginning of the season as they get back into wrestling shape after the off-season.

Wrestlers struggling to make weight have used a myriad of unpleasant methods to reach their goal. The use of diet pills, water pills, supplements, and laxatives is combined with time spent in saunas and hot practice rooms to eliminate water weight from the body.

The push to “make weight” became a national concern in 1997 when three wrestlers died in a five-week span. The victims had worn rubber suits and trained in hot practice rooms, which caused the fatal overheating and dehydration.

“It was amazing that no one had died previously,” Liles said.

The NCAA responded to the trio of tragedies by prohibiting artificial and dehydrating methods of weight loss, instituting urine tests to ensure proper hydration, and imposing weight-loss restrictions. The weight classes were also changed to more accurately reflect the weights of college students.

The steps reduced problems for current wrestlers as they can now avoid the nightmarish dehydration rituals. Nevertheless, making weight is still a concern for some wrestlers.

“If you don’t make weight, you don’t wrestle,” Barnes said.

Boldt, who wrestles at 197, said making weight is not a major concern now, but he didn’t relish the practice at the high school level.

“It’s hell,” Boldt said.

Freshman Martin Konechne said although making weight is “pretty tough to do,” it just requires hard work and eating slightly less. Avoiding junk food and carbonated beverages is one way to ease the burden of making weight, Konechne added.

For Liles, who wrestled at 118 pounds while he was in college (the lowest weight is now 125 pounds), the changes are beneficial for both him and his wrestlers.

“The new rules have made it safer,” Liles said. “It’s more enjoyable.”

Why Wrestling?

When one has to deal with rigorous training, nagging injuries and making weight, why would a student want to wrestle? Beyond the struggles to compete, there is the event itself: almost no one is watching. Crowds for basketball and football are always bigger.

“The sport builds a lot of character,” Barnes explained.

One wrestler said anonymously that wrestling enables him to beat someone up without getting into trouble. Having a few people watch just served as a bonus.

For Konechne, the family tradition and the competition encourage him to wrestle.

The ability for athletes of varying sizes to compete is another reason.

“I got cut from the basketball team and a teacher suggested wrestling due to my size,” Liles said.

Boldt embraces the philosophy of Vince Lombardi.

“Winning is the only reason to wrestle,” Boldt said. “I just like to win.”

For an increasing number of wrestlers, dreams of winning matches are becoming just that: dreams.

The presence of Title IX and budget limitations has led many athletic programs to reduce “non-revenue” men’s sports. Wrestling is one of the sports hardest hit by the changing environment of college sports.

Over half of the schools in Division I have eliminated wrestling programs since the advent of Title IX, including big-name schools such as Tennessee, Yale and Notre Dame.

The North Central Conference has not been immune, either. Many programs in South and North Dakota have been eliminated since the implementation of Title IX.

“Title IX is great to give women opportunities, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of opportunities for men,” Liles said.